Tasks of Passion

Literary criticism, 1982, Descant Editions, Toronto

This is the first in a series of books on important contemporary Canadian writers who have had insufficient recognition or whose work cannot he completely described by the use of traditional critical methodologies alone. An appropriate figure to begin with, Dennis Lee has had an unusually varied career poet, editor, essayist, reviewer and ‘journalist, children’s writer, educator, lyricist (and this list is far from complete) a career in which these roles so blend into one another that any account of his work tends to be, at best, partial.

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Preface

This is the first in a series of books on important contemporary Canadian writers who have had insufficient recognition or whose work cannot he completely described by the use of traditional critical methodologies alone. An appropriate figure to begin with, Dennis Lee has had an unusually varied career poet, editor, essayist, reviewer and ‘journalist, children’s writer, educator, lyricist (and this list is far from complete) a career in which these roles so blend into one another that any account of his work tends to be, at best, partial. Thus, though we have created broad divisions in the book for the reader’s convenience, many of the essays inevitably cut across the boundaries these categories suggest in order to locate Lee’s work in contexts not available to the reader of any one poem or hook. The importance of meditation and of music, the influence of German philosophy and poetry, the relationship between Lee’s theory, his life, and his work, the place of his nonsense verse, the meaning of his continued struggle with Modernism, and the evolution of civil and personal self within his writing these are some of the areas explored here. In their attempts to do justice to the body of the work, the essays may be seen approaching and moving around such topics reinforcing and modifying one another, until together they begin to provide a composite picture of a man who is so much in motion that the edges of the picture will always remain a blur.

We are particularly pleased to bring attention here to Lee’s work as an editor because that work has been extremely important and influential on the one hand, and almost invisible to the reading public on the other. Furthermore the editorial role has had profound effect on Lee’s own writing as well, for he is a compulsive reviser of his own work, publishing new versions of poems and essays years after their first appearance. Because he is therefore a writer in process, his poetry and essays do not form a stable corpus of discrete units but become a single work in progress, one always subject to further revision, always in development, always aspiring to a philosophy of life that lies beyond the written page. Deep within this work is a religious impulse that brings together voices even more disparate than those of his civil and personal personae, and that manifests itself as an urge to create cosmologically, to edit out of the me stuff of life a vision that is whole but not exclusive, one that contains comprehensively the nature of being.

We are also reminded of the ongoing nature of Lee’s career the first publication in this book of ‘Riffs’, his newest long poem, a poem which will undoubtedly continue to develop, as well as the first publication of ‘Polyphony’, Lee’s newest statement on the nature of cadence. The poem and the essay grow organically out of Lee’s earlier work and yet each signals new advances in that work, new challenges to future critics. Together the titles themselves affirm once more the continued importance of music in Lee’s works, of the lyricist moving to the page his internal songs.

We would like to thank all those who took part in his volume, and ECW Press for permission to use excerpts from Mary MacPherson’s forthcoming bibliography of Dennis Lee. We also wish to thank Ellen Pekilis for her editorial assistance in the making of this book.